Michael Kearns – whose newest play, “Bloodbound,” opens January 19th at the Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica – has been a respected luminary of the Los Angeles theatrical scene, as well as a legendary activist-artist, for years.
After making his debut here as a performer in Tom Eyen’s notorious “The Dirtiest Show in Town,” back in 1971, he has continued to contribute edgy and groundbreaking theatre from onstage and off – producing, directing, and writing plays which have broken taboos, pushed boundaries, and opened conversations about queer life, LGBTQ issues, and HIV/AIDS awareness. He’s written numerous books about the theatre, and contributed to many publications (including a recent article about the Harvey Weinstein scandal for the Los Angeles Blade).
He’s also never been one for keeping his private life a secret.
He first gained notoriety as a young actor in the 1970s – when, despite the widespread homophobia that plagued the film and television industry at the time, he came out as “Hollywood’s first openly gay actor” and still managed to maintain a healthy career in the mainstream while keeping one foot planted in the world of “alternative” art and theatre. Then, in 1991, he made television history by revealing his HIV-positive status on “Entertainment Tonight,” subsequently portraying a similarly-affected character in a recurring role on “Life Goes On,” as well as making appearances in other shows that tackled the subject of HIV/AIDS. A few years later, he went on to very publicly become the first HIV-positive, single, gay man to adopt a child (his daughter, he says, is “the most important force” in his life).
It should be no surprise, then, that for his latest theatrical endeavor, Kearns has turned to his own life for material.
“Bloodbound” is the story of two brothers – one a playwright, the other in prison for murder – who, as they enter their declining years, are struggling to make sense of the shared experiences that have led them each down their own divergent paths. Raised by a mother who – as Kearns puts it – “has no boundaries, none,” their relationship to each other and to the world around them is shaped by a deep and closely held secret. Now, three decades later, the playwright wants it to come out; his brother is not so sure.
This provocative premise begs the question of just how autobiographical a play Kearns has written. He’s cagey about the answer.
“I’m not making any secret out of the fact that I have a brother in prison,” he says. “But whether the play is autobiographical or not, EVERY play I write is autobiographical, every single word I write is autobiographical.”
Pressed for details about the plot, he is even cagier. He says a few cryptic things about the state of the prison system in 21st-century America, and alludes to subject matter that evokes thoughts of the #MeToo movement, but not much else is forthcoming.
“I’m not being deliberately coy about revealing what it’s about. But it’s so personal and so painful in so many respects, maybe that’s what’s coming across.”
That may be the case, but the sly twinkle of humor in his voice is an unmistakable sign that, like any good magician, he is determined not to reveal too much about what’s up his sleeve. Nevertheless, he goes on.
“These two brothers have a very big secret, and it drives the play, and it has driven their love for each other. And really, the playwright is just as imprisoned as his brother; they’re both imprisoned by the fact that they don’t talk about this incident that has happened. So what they are really working towards, what they are really fighting for, is the freedom of love.
It’s funny. You could say this play traverses the themes that I have been writing about for years. In other words, it’s very sexually charged – but isn’t my stuff really about the freedom to love? Does it really have anything to do with sex at the end of the day? I write about sex, but am I not really writing about love? I thought that was a really interesting thing to come up with at this point in my life.”
When discussing the stylistic form of the piece, he is much more direct.
“The plays that I consider my most solid, exciting pieces are in no way linear, ‘beginning-middle-end’ scripts, and they’re not intended to be. I didn’t invent this concept, of course. I think the word these days is ‘mosaic,’ or ‘impressionistic.’ They’re not like the plays we grew up on. This one has a sense of going back and forth through time. It’s very theatrical, in that my character…” He chuckles at this slip. “OOPS, I mean the playwright character… serves as a sort of narrator, and throughout the play he has to conjure their past, to re-enact many of the incidents that have led the two brothers to this moment in time. Two actors play each brother, the younger and older versions, and they can ALL talk to each other.”
So why did Kearns feel the need to write this particular play, at this particular time?
“I think my inspiration for writing any play is that I have some primal, visceral need to figure out who I am. Yes, I have a big investment in the community, and an investment in trying to make issues around sexuality less frightening for people – but I have to write, whether I’m inspired or not. Also, I believe that we’re losing the love of language. My writing is conversational, but then it flies into complicated, romantic, poetic, passionate language. I think it’s so critical, because where else are we going to get this language, besides in the theatre? That’s where I learned it, and I think part of what I’m doing is to say not to be afraid of going crazy with language, just a little bit.
Maybe most the most important thing I would like people to get from ‘Bloodbound’ has to do with looking at things that are unconventional or uncomfortable and just giving them a chance. My characters are not written to be instantly loveable, or instantly relatable – it takes work to love them. It’s a challenge to the audience. It’s no different than me, Michael, having to learn to listen to someone who voted for Trump – it’s just painful to me, I don’t want to talk to them. But at some point, we must learn to listen to other people, and that’s part of what this play is about. I want the audience to increase their level of empathy.”
All this may seem fairly grim – but anyone familiar with Kearns quirky, outrageous work knows that it is sure to be served up with a healthy dose of humor.
“It certainly doesn’t sound funny, but it is. It’s deeply funny.”
“Bloodbound” is directed by Mark Bringelson, and stars Golden Globe nominee (for “Dynasty”) Gordon Thomson, Greg Ainsworth, Mike Bash, and Hunter Lee Hughes.
“BLOODBOUND” by Michael Kearns
Highways Performance Space, 1651 18th Street, Santa Monica, CA (at the 18th Street Arts Center).
Tickets: ($25 general and $20 members/students/seniors) are available at www.highwaysperformance.org
Fridays: January 19 and 26 at 8:30pm
Saturdays: January 20 and 27 at 8:30pm
Sundays: January 28, February 4, 11, 18, 25, and March 4 at 3:30pm